~ There Once Was In Rome... ~
- 2 -

the Septizonium





Prior to the late 16th century, anybody entering Rome from the ancient Appian Way would have certainly noticed a tall ruin with a curious shape, standing by a Y junction, between the road that passed by the church of St.Gregory the Great leading towards the Colosseum, and the one that ran below the Palatine Hill, by the swampy grounds where the Circus Maximus once stretched (see map below).
It was commonly known as the Septizonium or Septizodium - it also had other names, as will be said further - and its structure had an L-shaped section, with three floors or levels, each of which surrounded by columns.

the Septizonium in an etching dated 1546 and, seen from the back, in the map by Mario Cartaro (1576) oriented to the east; other reference sites are: the Palatine Hill
with the imperial palaces (left), the Circus Maximus (below right), the church of St.Gregory (top) and the spot from where the ancien Appian Way springs (right, )

Obviously, it was only a fragment of the original building, much more grand, a long front made of several sections, some of which similar to the surviving one, others with a tall niche in the lower half, arranged in alternate order (see the reconstruction, below): this gave the structure a greater depth, and enhanced its shadows and lights effect.
Who had the Septizonium built at the beginning of the 3rd century was Septimius Severus; during his reign (193-211), the emperor had refurbished the imperial district on the Palatine hill, probably including this project as a finishing touch to the works.

Among the ancient Roman buildings still extant today, two that have some resemblance with the Septizonium, from a structural point of view, are the theatre in Merida (in Spain, c.15 BC, on the right), and the front of the library in Ephesus (bottom right picture, c.AD 135, presently located in Turkey). Many suggest that the latter was not a unique project of its kind, but that the many libraries built in several cities of the Roman Empire were based on building schemes rather similar to this specimen.
(↑ above) the theatre in Merida and the library in Ephesus (below ↓)

a hypothetic reconstruction of the Septizonium

The building in Rome had the dual purpose of acting as a lavish front of the imperial district, and as a majestic nymphaeum, as it was once decorated with statues, paintings and/or mosaics, fountains, plants, etc.
It faced the south, i.e. towards the Appian way, which sprung just beyond this spot, so that whoever entered the city from that direction, would have been welcomed by the awing view.

Since the early Middle Ages, the Septizonium endured the effects of carelessness and earthquakes, being used over the centuries as a quarry of precious and costless building material; this caused the loss of all the statues and the marble parts that were left there.

map by Nicolas Beatrizet (1557), oriented to the east: the Septizonium →
stands near the Y-junction by the start of the ancient Appian way (marked )


fragment of the Forma Urbis Romae map
featuring the left half of the Septizonium
Around the 10th century, the ruin was also included within a large stronghold that belonged to the powerful Frangipane family; some time later it became a property of the nearby church of St.Gregory.

Unlike several other no longer existing buildings, the Septizonium is frequently mentioned by ancient authors, starting with the very biographer of Septimius Severus, Helius Spartianus, who though did not specify the origin of the structure's name.
Also the famous Forma Urbis Romae, the huge map of Rome carved in marble that hung by the Temple of Peace, whose making had been sponsored by the same emperor, featured the floor plan of this building (detail below left).

Also many other medieval guides for pilgrims and travellers mention it, with different names that change from one edition to the other.
Several of them carry a reference to the sun: Septemsolium (in Mirabilia Urbis Romae, 11th-12th centuries), Septasolis (in Graphia aureae urbis Romae, 12th century), Septem Solia (in Tractatus de rebus antiquis et situ urbis Romae, better known as Magliabechian Anonym, early 15th century); interestingly, nearby stood the church of Santa Lucia in Septa Solis (or in Septisolio), which suggests that these names referred to the seven heavenly spheres, i.e. the seven planets believed to revolve around the Earth, according to the Ptolemaic interpretation of the cosmos. In fact Mariano Armellini, in his well-known work The Churches Of Rome (1891), maintains that further names given to the building were Septem viae or Septem vias (i.e. seven ways), "symbolizing the seven heavenly zones, or heavenly atmospheres".

the Septizonium, with the Palatine hill and
a fragment of aqueduct in the background, c.1575

St.Francis of Assisi's friend in Rome, the blessed Giacoma or Jacopa Frangipane (c.1190-1239), was better known as Jacopa de' Settesoli after the name of this ruin, which in those days belonged to her family.


modern view of the site where the Septizonium stood,
just south of the Palatine Hill
Biondo Flavio (early 15th century) mentions this building in his Instaurate Romae ("Restored Rome") also as Septodium. Instead the etching by Etienne du Perac (above) has a caption to inform the readers that "the common people call it Vergil's school".

Others maintain that the Septizonium may have been named after the same emperor; instead, the hypothesis according to which the name was due to the building's seven floors or levels (as sometimes is found) seems unlikely, because of the size that such a structure would have had.

The curious remain that survived certainly drew the attention of Renaissance artists, who left us several views of it, thanks to which we now have an idea, yet rather vague, of what lavish look it may have had eighteen centuries ago.

Everything came to an end during the reign of pope Sixtus V, who around 1588 did not have any scruple in taking down what was left standing of the Septizonium (reputed a pagan work), in order to use the little marble left for his modernization campaign that changed Rome's medieval look into that of a Renaissance city. A hand-written message by the pope, dated May 23rd, 1589, reads as follows: "Cavalier Domenico Fontana, you shall consign to Muzio Mattei, or to whoever he will indicate, five blocks of peperino marble that have been taken from the Septizonium, which we give to him to be used for the making of his fountains in Strada Felice and Strada Pia", i.e. respectively the present via Quattro Fontane and via del Quirinale-via XX Settembre, in whose corners are the so-called Four Fountains (see Fountains, part III page 9).
The famous archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani compiled a list of works for which the material obtained by taking down the ruin was used; they included, among others, the fašade of the transept of St.John in the Lateran, the church of St.Jerome of the Illyrians by Ripetta, the restoration of the column of Marcus Aurelius (in particular, the base on which the bronze statue of St.Paul stands at the top of the monument), the foundations of the Flaminian obelisk in piazza del Popolo and, obviously, the tomb of the same Sixtus V and that of Pius V, both located in the pope's lavish family chapel, in the basilica of St.Mary the Major.

one of the Four Fountains, built
with the marble from the Septizonium